Fire drills

Firefighters with Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting at the Aspen airport participate in an emergency response drill last month. The airport, which is managed by Pitkin County, and the Aspen Fire Protection District are trying to come to terms on a new agreement concerning who has command in the event of an emergency at the facility.

Tempers seem to have cooled between Pitkin County and Aspen Fire Protection District in the discussion around working together in any emergency situation at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. At least, that was the impression given at a joint meeting Tuesday.

“The conversation is really between the boards,” Board of County Commissioners Chair Greg Poschman said when outlining the goals of the meeting, which did not include public comment. “We’re going to try to work through this; this is just the beginning.”

By “this,” he was referencing efforts to update a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, between the Aspen fire district and the airport’s Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting, or ARFF — also a recognized fire department by the state. 

“This is the first time I’ve met with the fire board; it’s certainly overdue,” Poschman continued. 

In addition to the respective board members, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and Airport Director John Kinney were all in attendance, as was Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine and several members from ARFF, Aspen Fire and Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, which serves Snowmass and the midvalley. 

There has been some disagreement, made public at a September Aspen Fire board meeting, about which entity should take command in an incident at the airport and which jurisdiction takes preemption. The airport is within Aspen Fire’s jurisdiction but also falls under the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority. 

“We were hoping to go farther today, but there’s nothing we can talk about at this point until we get some basic understanding,” Poschman said.

In that regard, Karl Hanlon, the Aspen fire district’s attorney, offered a timetable for moving forward.

“I think that it definitely is a complex environment and I appreciate both sides,” he said. “I really wanted to thank John Ely. You have a very busy county attorney and we have carved out time to sit down Thursday morning. We’ll be back in a little while with hopefully a bench product that everybody is happy with.”

Peacock also took a moment to approach the boards about his hopes for a future agreement.

“Any major event that would require mutual response is going to require all of our agencies to be working well together: the airport, Aspen Fire Protection District, the ambulance district, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue District and maybe even beyond,” he said. “Our goal needs to be, and I think is, find the system where we can all coordinate and plug in and serve the public to the greatest degree possible.”

Everyone in the room projected optimism in their comments. Poschman noted that, like so much in the community, the airport is managing some growing pains.

“If you’re just a member of the public, it’s hard to notice the changes that have occurred in the last 40 years. We are at 384,000 enplanements. General aviation consumes 7-8 million gallons of fuel,” he said. “This is not tiny little Sardy Field that we all remember — this is the second or third busiest in the state, depending on what day is. There’s an awful lot going on there that the general public may not perceive.”

Which is all the more reason collaboration should be commended, emphasized Karl Adam, Aspen Fire board president.

“The devil’s in the details at this point, and we have great teams in place to sort out those details and we just want to thank all of you for allowing us to come together and move this process forward,” he said.

Members from both boards reiterated their commitments to serving the public in the event of an emergency.

“We have an obligation to show up,” Hanlon said.

“As do we,” Commissioner Patti Clapper replied.

Commissioner Steve Child offered assistance at the state level, should it come to that.

“If you ever see a possible need for a change in state statute, you could bring [us] on,” he told Hanlon. “We could bring forward legislation and contacting our legislators, so if you do see anything that a change in the state statute would help us resolve our situation here, definitely let us know.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.